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Bryson Barnes seems to only play on the biggest stages. Playing in two Rose Bowls? Check. What about a start in a key October game at Washington State to keep the defending Pac-12 champion’s title game hopes alive? The Utah quarterback also started in the Utes’ win over Florida this season, the Gators’ first true road nonconference clash outside the Sunshine State since 1991.
Utes on the air
No. 13 Utah 6-1)
vs. No. 8 Oregon (6-1)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM
So heading into Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, with Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams on the other side, in a game Utah had to win to keep its Pac-12 title hopes kicking, was no big deal.
“Definitely excited for the opportunity in front of us. Not even just for myself but for the team. They’re definitely kind of in the corner right now. They’re coming after us. We beat them twice last year, Pac-12 championship. They’ve been gunning for us and so definitely excited for the opportunity we have in front of us,” Barnes said ahead of the game.
It’s been a roller coaster ride for the former walk-on from Milford, Utah. Not on scholarship at the beginning of the 2023 season, he was awarded a scholarship after a good performance vs. the Gators — 12 of 18 for 159 yards, a passing touchdown and a rushing touchdown — that started with a 70-yard touchdown pass to Money Parks on the first play.
He was able to quit his job at Lowe’s and was on top of the Utah college football world.
Then came the worst game of his career at Baylor.
The accuracy wasn’t there and he didn’t look comfortable, completing just 6 of 19 passes for 71 yards and throwing an interception. Utah’s coaches had seen enough and benched Barnes for Nate Johnson, who came in and led the Utes to a comeback 20-13 win in Waco.
At this point, it looked as if it was going to be Johnson’s team going forward, and it was — for two games.
Then it was Johnson’s turn to be benched. Following some middling offensive performances vs. Weber State and UCLA, Johnson struggled with his own inaccuracies and was pulled against Oregon State early in the third quarter with a stat line of 3 of 11 for 35 yards.
And so the quarterback carousel turned.
Barnes then orchestrated the most promising drive of the game, completing four of five passes to get the Utes, down 14 points, into the red zone for the first time of the evening — but then threw a bad interception. Later, he was knocked out of the game after being speared by an Oregon State defender, suffering bruised ribs, and went to a Corvallis hospital to get everything checked out.
Fast-forward a month later, and Barnes is yet again on top of the Utah college football world after helping revive the Utes’ stagnant offense.
“There’s definitely frustrations and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, the situation that you have, that’s what you have to deal with,” Barnes said. “You got to control what you can control and what I can control is myself and what I was doing in practice each and every day and being ready for these opportunities that could potentially arise in the future. And sure enough, they did.”
Utah tweaked practice ahead of the Cal game, giving all of the first-team reps to Barnes on Monday, instead of doing what they had been doing, having Rising split them in practice until the thumbs-up or thumbs-down on Rising’s status came on Thursday or Friday from Rising’s surgeon, Dr. Neal ElAttrache. Barnes shrugged that off when asked, saying that it didn’t change the way he prepared.
He’s refused to quit, sticking it out on the team as a walk-on since 2020 and beating out Utah’s recruited quarterbacks for the backup spot in each of the last three seasons. And after being benched this season, he put his head down and kept on working, waiting for another opportunity.
Barnes has certainly made the most of his second chance. He threw for 128 yards on 71.4% accuracy, adding 50 yards and a touchdown on the ground vs. Cal, but saved his best performance of his career for last week.
Ahead of the game in Los Angeles, his uniform had something new on it, a “C” on the upper chest. With Rising out for the year, Barnes’ teammates had voted him a team captain.
“It definitely means a lot,” Barnes said. “I’m excited to be able to be elected as a captain, first of all, so I can represent my teammates and at the end of the day what it just shows kind of the respect and trust that I have from the rest of the team to be able to hold that position.”
He went out and led the the team like a captain is supposed to do.
Barnes had the game of his life, going toe-to-toe with Williams. Barnes threw for a career-high 235 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for one more, adding 57 yards on the ground. He looked comfortable and confident, taking command of the offense.
His first pass of the game was a 53-yard touchdown to Sione Vaki, who dusted a USC defender on a wheel route. Barnes dropped it in his hands perfectly, setting the tone for the game.
Even after making a big mistake at a critical juncture — throwing a pick-six in the early fourth quarter that got USC within a touchdown — Utah showed faith in Barnes. On the very next play, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig dialed up a pass, which went for 36 yards to Vaki.
After a huge 61-yard punt return by Zachariah Branch set up an 11-yard touchdown run by Williams that gave the Trojans a 32-31 lead with 1:46 left, Barnes was tasked with a game-winning drive.
The key play that set up Cole Becker’s game-winning 39-yard field goal came on second-and-15 from the USC 45-yard line with 16 seconds left.
“I kind of dropped back, kind of felt the pressure, stepped up in the pocket, took off running,” Barnes said.
Barnes streamed down the sideline, evading two USC defenders for the biggest 26-yard gain of his life.
“I saw (USC linebacker Raesjon Davis) chasing (Ja’Quinden Jackson) and knew he didn’t know that I was running the ball right there, and so just get what you can,” Barnes said.
Becker nailed the field goal, and in the postgame press conference, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham extolled his quarterback.
“They’ve got a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, so they’re going to make some things. We got ourselves a pig farmer quarterback, so we’re proud of that guy, too,” Whittingham said.
It’s going to be another big stage for Barnes on Saturday, with ESPN’s “College GameDay” in Salt Lake City for No. 13 Utah’s matchup against No. 8 Oregon.
Barnes’ confidence keeps growing, and Utah will need another big performance out of him as the Utes try to upset Oregon
“I just think the way he’s operating now, he never was not confident, but he seems very sure of himself and very confident in what he’s doing, really taking charge,” Whittingham said.
In case you missed it
Vaki, Utah’s two-way player, expanded his offensive role against USC, playing safety (two tackles with excellent coverage — he was the second-highest graded player in coverage for Utah vs. USC, per Pro Football Focus), running back (nine carries for 68 yards) and receiver (game-high 149 yards and two touchdowns on five catches).
Before he was starring for the Utes, he was thriving playing both ways at Liberty High School in California. I talked to Vaki’s high school coach about the origins of the two-way phenom.
From the archives
What Kyle Whittingham said about sign stealing (Deseret News)
What’s next for Cam Rising and Brant Kuithe? (Deseret News)
‘College GameDay’ is coming back to Salt Lake City (Deseret News)
Oct. 26 | 6 p.m. MDT | Women’s soccer | vs. Arizona State | @ Salt Lake City
Oct. 27 | 11 a.m. MDT | Cross-country | Pac-12 championships | @ University Place, Washington
Oct. 27 | 1 p.m. MDT | Swimming and diving | vs. Arizona | @ Salt Lake City
Oct. 28 | 1:30 p.m. MDT | Football | vs. Oregon | @ Salt Lake City